Traveling through China's Yúnnán province last week, we stopped at Buddhist temples, hiked sacred mountain paths, sailed across magnificently blue lakes, and ate some of the freshest, most unusual food that I have tried in China.
Chinese food has a special place in my heart -- or rather, several such places. For one, my husband was born in China, and the food that he raves most about is Chinese fare. Secondly, I actually had the chance to spend some time in China myself, when I accompanied my husband to Beijing for four months in 2005. I was still in the early stages (the first year) of my recovery from an eating disorder, and I remember Beijing as a place where I experimented with new ways of eating and new approaches to food.
China turned out to be the ideal place to practice "intuitive eating," when you eat when you're truly hungry, eat what you want to eat, and stop when you are full. China lent itself to intuitive eating because, at Chinese meals, individual portions are rarely served; instead, each member of the table is invited to serve him- or herself from communal dishes in the center of the table. Because each meal is crafted to have a variety of flavors and textures, diners are supposed to sample from each dish (and not merely eat one's favorite dishes) in order to get a balanced meal.
At first, this way of eating was intimidating to me -- how was I supposed to know how much to eat, or when to stop, if there was no plate of my own, no portion size, and copious amounts of food to reckon with? Over time I learned to follow my dining companions, to eat slowly and rest my chopsticks often, and to focus on the people and conversation instead of on the food.
This week, as we visited the historic cities of Dàlĭ and Lìjiāng (see the photo at left) in northern Yúnnán, I had ample opportunities to practice the Chinese way of eating: whether it was a simple breakfast of rice porridge (congee) with preserved eggs and cabbage, or a lavish dinner of tea-cooked chicken and lotus root slivers, every meal was shared. I cannot decipher Chinese menus, but I found that I enjoyed letting my husband and his parents order for all of us, trusting that I would end up with something that I liked (besides discovering something new in the process). We ate many memorable meals, many of which would take years for me to try to recreate, but more than the flavors and the recipes, I want to bring back with me some of the Chinese attitude towards food: I want to view food as a communal experience; food as a healing art; and food as a slow delight.